The Felix Awards continue with a celebration of the prolific and talented Cece Bell, the author and illustrator of El Deafo and many other wonderful books. El Deafo won a Newbery in 2014 and is receiving a Felix in 2020 in gratitude for the impact it has had on our children. In the words of Felix Awards Committee member and poet Craig Teicher, “Our daughter read El Deafo maybe two years ago and has kept it within arm’s reach since—it’s far and away her favorite book, and has opened so many conversations in our family, time after time, about how to think about and understand her disabled brother, about how to understand difference in a broader context, about how to understand herself and our family within the contexts of her community.”
Emily Schultz’s Interview:
In the graphic novel El Deafo, by Cece Bell, a Kindergarten-aged rabbit in a polka dot bathing suit wears a hearing aid in her long ears, but secretly just wants to be like her friends.
Bell’s work tracks her real-life experience of moving from hearing to deaf following her hospitalization for meningitis as a child. She did her graduate degree in illustration and design at Kent State University before becoming a full-time author and illustrator who captured both the Eisner Award and the Newbery Honor for this book. Her other books are: Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover, Rabbit & Robot and Ribbit, I Yam a Donkey, Bee-Wigged, Itty Bitty, and the Sock Monkey series. She has also created books with her husband Tom Angleberger, including Crankee Doodle and the Inspector Flytrap series.
In May, I spoke to her by email and asked her about her books, her own story, and her creative process.
Q&A with Cece Bell
Emily Schultz: You’ve done a lot of great children’s books. When did you decide to draw your own story? When did you know you were ready to tell it, in both words and pictures?
Cece Bell: I decided to tell my own story when I was about 40, after a particularly difficult interaction with a grocery store employee. I was struggling to understand her, and she got angrier and angrier as the transaction continued. I should have said, “I’m deaf! Give me a break!” But instead, I said nothing. So I ended up being mad at the woman, but even madder at myself for being deaf for most of my life, but still not able to speak up about it.
One of my main goals was to show hearing people what it feels like to be deaf. I quickly realized that the graphic novel format was perfect for showing this, as I could manipulate the speech balloons in lots of fun ways to show what Cece is hearing — or not hearing — at any given moment.
Plus, I am not the best descriptive writer, so I knew I could rely on my pictures to fill in the blanks of what I was having trouble expressing.
ES: Could you tell me in your own words how you became hearing impaired, and how your story intersects with or diverges from the character in the graphic novel?
CB: I lost my hearing in 1975, when I was four-and-a-half years old. I had been sick with meningitis and was in the hospital for two weeks. It took a while after I returned home for my parents to figure it out. I think I was so happy to be back home, and so exhausted from my time in the hospital, that I didn’t quite understand what was going on. As a child, it felt like my hearing was something that was taken from me. I had identified as a hearing person for all of my short life up to that point, and suddenly I was something else: deaf. El Deafo (my secret childhood nickname that I gave myself) is the story of that struggle.
The book really is my story. I made some adjustments to my timeline and altered or combined scenes from my childhood so that the book would be as entertaining a story as possible. But I made no adjustments to the feelings in the book — those are 100% true.
I ended the book with a lovely, grand moment of self-acceptance because I knew lots of deaf kids — and lots of kids who might be struggling in similar ways — would be reading the book. I wanted to give them a big dose of hope! But the truth is that it took years and years for me to get there. I didn’t have one big moment; I had lots of small moments that built up over time, helping me gradually feel more comfortable about myself and the things that made me “different.” Something that really surprised me was how telling my own story got me over that final hurdle to a place where I am really happy with who I am, and proud of my deafness and how I’ve chosen to navigate it.
And one more thing: technology, though often the bane of everyone’s existence, can be quite remarkable for those of us with disabilities. E-mail and texting have changed my life as much, or more, than hearing aids have. Being able to communicate with others in the same exact way that they communicate with others has been the greatest thing to happen in my adult life. Like I said, remarkable!
ES: One big difference between you and the book: the book shows the character of Cece as a rabbit in a polka dot bikini (a choice I love). Why rabbits?
CB: Bunnies have giant ears and excellent hearing. I felt like that one rabbit in a whole community of rabbits who had big ears like everyone else, but my big ears didn’t work. In real life, the cords of my school hearing aid went up to the sides of my head — visible, but not too visible. By making the characters bunnies, I got to draw the cords going all the way over my head, which looks much more obvious. I wanted to convey that feeling of worrying about what I looked like, of being conspicuous, when I didn’t want to stand out at all.
ES: As she goes from being a typical hearing child, to using a hearing aid she’s very concerned with how she looks to her friends. You really do a fantastic job of portraying a child’s self-consciousness and desire to fit in. But Cece the rabbit realizes she can have friends and pick and choose her own life path. What would you say to kids today who are having the same struggle of feeling like they need to fit in and wondering how to find their friendship circle and support?
CB: Share the things that make you different! Don’t hide them away like I did. Kids are curious, and the sooner you explain to them how and why you might be different, the sooner they have a chance to understand you better and to accept you the way you are.
ES: You have a mini-essay at the back of the book about how the book is only your experience with deafness. I wondered if you could speak to that here.
CB: Every disability has its own spectrum. In other words, some of us struggle more than others with a similar disability, and some of us struggle less. Some of us were luckier than others in how our caregivers cared for us and provided for us. The most important thing is that there is no wrong or right way to manage your disability. It’s yours and yours alone. You don’t need to apologize for it or explain it if you don’t want to; it’ll always be a part of your life’s path, but it doesn’t have to be the main part.
ES: I noticed on your website you do school and Skype visits. Can you tell us about how those work, or any memorable moments from interacting with your readers?
CB: My school visits are very rare these days, but yes, I do Skype visits from time to time. I’m actually going to switch to Zoom — one of the better things that these strange times have taught me is that Zoom is a better platform, ha ha! Anyway, I love it when a child raises his or her hand during the question-and-answer portion of my presentation, points to a hearing aid or cochlear implant, and says, “I’ve got hearing aids, too!” I’m in awe of the bravery it takes to do and say that. I was not that child!
ES: It’s quite an honor to win the Newbery Award — and well deserved. Tell me about what that moment was like for you.
CB: Surreal! And it continues to feel that way. Like I said earlier, I don’t see myself as a very good descriptive writer, so I will never stop feeling deep gratitude to the committee for giving me that award.
ES: What are you working on now?
CB: Something super top secret! And I’m also in the early stages of a couple of potential books. I’m making videos (posted on YouTube ) that are deep dives into each chapter of El Deafo. And I’m just hanging in there, trying to tough out these strange times we’re living in. Do Gratitude Lists count as projects? Those, too.